Friday, June 25, 2010


Sorry to go on and on about the Thackerays, but I have to get this idea off my chest. This has to do with the phonetic problem of transcribing Indian names accurately into the Roman script.

Let me take my own family name as an example. I spell it GOKHALE, thereby creating a problem. What’s the A doing there? Answer: It is there because we are pedantic. By inserting it after KH, we are saying KH is a fully pronounced consonant. Without the A, we will mislead people into thinking that the KH and the LE make a joint consonant.

Great, wonderful in theory. But see the confusion it causes in practice.

Way back in the year dot, I was being interviewed for a seat at Bristol University. Three polite gentlemen sat before me on the other side of a wide table. One of them inclined his head and said, “Please sit down Miss Gokhale”, pronouncing it like Go-pale. Natural mistake given a certain rule in English spelling that has no exceptions (as far as I know), which says E after a consonant means the previous vowel is to be pronounced as it is in the alphabet.

I would have let it pass had the gentleman not smiled and inquired, “That is the way you pronounce your name, I hope?” Even then I could have nodded and said yes. But instead I said helpfully, “No, it’s Go-kha-le.” I thought separating the syllables thus would make the role of A clear. Despite which, the second gentleman said, “Oh yes, of course, I can see that now.” Then very carefully he tried it out. “Miss Go-khaa-le”, he said, bringing Hindi food into my middle. He too made the mistake of asking politely if he had got it right. Again I could have smiled brightly and said of course you have. And again I did not. I did worse. I said, “No, but that’s okay. I don’t mind.” I meant to sound kind and forgiving. But I ended up sounding patronising--to three men who’d done doctorates in heavy-duty Eng Lit issues from colleges in Oxford and Cambridge.

They guffawed at their gaffes and one of them said self-disparagingly, British as ever, “The English tongue finds it difficult to get around anything more challenging than fish and chips.” The others shook their heads and said “Oh dear oh dear, we must work on this,” while I said to myself, “There goes my seat.”

But I got it.

Anyway, all this is to explain that our insistence on transcribing a full, as against a half consonant in the Roman script makes for social embarrassment in England. Thackeray has escaped it by not going to England at all. But his name is very closely connected with English soil.

Let me pull his name apart to demonstrate how. People generally use A to indicate a full consonant. Thackeray uses an E instead. No problem. People generally use an E for the end vowel. He chooses to transcribe it as AY as in DAY or SAY. Fair enough. Each to his own. We are a tolerant nation and all that. But why doesn’t he transcribe the central consonant of his name with a K? Why “CK”?

Ah! That’s where my little idea comes in. My theory is that he chose to spell his name like Thackeray the 19th century British novelist, creator of the earliest upwardly mobile anti-heroine in English literature, Becky (Rebecca) Sharpe of “Vanity Fair”, because of a deeply felt kinship.

Just look at the similarities. The Brit Thackeray was a journalist. Our Thackeray began his journey into political prominence with a magazine called “Marmik”. The Brit Thackeray was a humourist. He wrote for “Punch”. Our Thackeray was (some people think “is”) a humourist. “Marmik” was a jokey magazine. The Brit Thackeray was a caricaturist. Our Thackeray was also one. That’s how he got his cartooning job with the Free Press Journal. Now, think of the Brit Thackeray’s first name, William. Shortened to Billy doesn’t it come close to Bal? Two consonants in common.

There, unfortunately, the similarities end and our great misfortunes begin. The Brit Thackeray’s middle name was an invitation, MAKEPEACE. He was WILLIAM MAKEPEACE THACKERAY when fully unfurled. Our Thackeray was thrilled to cosy up to his first and last names; but when he came to the invitation in the middle…

Complete the above sentence and send to this blog. The person who sends in the best entry will be rewarded with a free tour of Matoshree and the chance to touch Balasaheb’s feet.

The Father's Son

The arrival of a new political menace on the Mumbai scene is heralded by two events. The first is a show of muscle power on the streets designed to make citizens’ lives maximally difficult or even impossible. The second is the appearance of hoardings congratulating the menace on having added one more year to his life.

This is to announce the arrival of our new political menace—NITESH RANE, son of, (or should I say scion of?) Shri Narayan Rane, erstwhile Shiv Sena man, then rebel Congressman, presently subdued Congressman, but raring to be something more volcanic. Nitesh Rane, besides running petrol pumps, hotels, beer bars and whatever else that has come to him by way of silver spoons in the mouth, has now also gone on to earn his own spurs. We are not privy to the rites of passage that a young tough is put through before he is let out on to the streets of Mumbai; but one surmises that his elders will certify him an honoured member of the tribe now that he has distinguished himself in his first stint at street service.

Nitesh Rane took this test on Tuesday the 22nd of June and came out with flying colours. His three-year-old outfit, Swabhiman, made it to the front pages of every city newspaper for putting such a huge spoke in the rumbling wheels of the city that the city stalled and came to a halt for one whole day. All Nitesh had to do was to say to his men, “Go get them Rufus” or its equivalent in Sindhudurg-Chembur lingo, and off they bounded and smashed up 200 autos and taxis. The remaining one lakh ricks and 55,000 taxis ran off the roads and hid.

The entrenched union leaders whom we have learned to live with, claimed not to have called the strike. “Why would we,” they argued, aggrieved, “when the government had already set the date for talks on the fare hike we were asking for?” So when the strike happened, they were left with their mouths open. The venerable A. L. Quadros had to shut even that when the Shiv Sena’s Mumbai Taxi Chalak Malak Sena asked the gathered media who the hell he was to be asked to speak for taximen? Quadros didn’t even twirl his considerably weighty whiskers in answer to that question. He simply turned tail and walked away.

But it was Nitesh Rane who had won the day. The following day the Press carried his utterly reasonable statement on the previous day’s victory. His aim had never been, he said, to inconvenience the public (had someone been insensitive enough to suspect him of that?) No, No, No. All he had wanted to do was to help the poor rickshawallas whose numbers his union commanded. Since this was said with an admirably straight face and justifiable pride, the Press quoted him without comment. He has thus lived up to the name of his outfit, SWABHIMAN. Pride in self.

As I said earlier, two events mark the rise of a political menace. With not a single taxi or rickshaw on the roads on Tuesday, Nitesh Rane has vaulted clear over the first bar; and the proof of this triumph is in the birthday greetings. They congratulate him, their “dashing, dynamic saheb” (yes, he’s already that! We live in fast moving times) on growing up by one year on June 23. As for us, we must now find a way of living with this added dash and dynamism on our streets!

Wednesday, June 23, 2010


Last week a young couple came to invite me to their wedding and stayed to discuss problems that were troubling them. The young man was disturbed by the effect Raj Thackeray’s anti-north Indian campaign had done to his north Indian friends. One story in particular had depressed him.

A good friend, a quiet, hard-working, non-drinking, non-partying type, living as a tenant in a flat in Dombivali, was suddenly told to quit his flat because the remaining seven tenants, all Marathis, didn’t want a bhaiyya in their midst. The landlord had been very happy with this young man for the four years he had stayed in the flat, but said he was helpless in the face of the other tenants’ antagonism. The young man was rushing off for a shoot when the tenants’ delegation visited. He asked them for time. The tenants said nothing doing. Go. The young man had no choice. He packed his stuff, made an SOS call to a friend and moved in temporarily with him.

After this incident, the tension between my young friend and his north Indian friends has become palpable. “When I join them at our usual haunt, they fall silent. When I invited them to my wedding, they looked at the invitation card, saw it was in Marathi and became hostile. How do I deal with this?”

I said if his north Indian friends did not distinguish between him and Raj Thackeray’s mobs, they would only help him in his dangerous work. “But the tenants in my friend’s building weren’t part of Thackeray’s mobs,” he said. “They had been pretty friendly earlier. I tell you, the poison has got into ordinary Marathi people. Can’t we do something about it?”

I had no solution to offer.

My young friend’s fiancée has a problem that ties in with the old gender issue that’s been thrown up yet again with the suave David Davidar being accused of sexual harassment. His statement expresses deep regret at the hurt he has caused his wife (thanks Tiger Woods), but claims that his ‘flirtations’ were consensual. We gather from blogs by women that problems like this occur in organisations where informal friendships between bosses and employees are part of the work culture. Trouble starts when women realise that what began as a friendship was being subtly pushed towards flirtation. The women admit frankly that they enjoy the friendships, but begin to get uncomfortable when they change colour. The line between the one and the other is so blurred that before they know it, they’ve played into the man’s hand. This explains why their protests come so late in the day.

My young friend’s fiancée is a friendly young software programmer who works in Mantralaya. She was the first of the breed to be hired, and is full of justified pride in her profession. Gradually over time she has realised that her male colleagues are not impressed by her professional qualifications. They see her only and exclusively as a young female, who may be ogled, told risqué jokes and humiliated with innuendos about how she got her job.

“Do they know,” she asked with tears in her eyes, “what battles I had to fight with my family and community to be allowed to do this professional course? Do they not see how good I am at my job? Why do my clothes matter to them more than my work? I wear what I’m wearing now, a simple salwar-kameez. Is there something wrong with that? What angers me is that it isn’t just the older men who have this attitude, but men my age as well. How do I deal with this constant harassment? What do I do when I’m told a dirty joke that embarrasses me? If I show I’m embarrassed they are tickled. If I pretend I’m not embarrassed they are happy again because they can then whisper amongst themselves that I’m a ‘bold’ girl. I really don’t know how to deal with this.”

The conundrum is similar, though less destructive in its outcome, to the rape victim’s. If she screams it excites the rapist. If she doesn’t scream, she is supposed to have consented to rape.

“Don’t your women colleagues support and advise you?” I asked. Her smile now was really sad. “They have submitted to this kind of harassment themselves. One of them said it’ll stop once I’m married.”

That of course is patently untrue.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Imagined image

This is a real laugh. When I say our country is bizarre I mean it is seriously bizarre because of stuff like this.

Organisations, governmental, non-governmental, whichever, are supposed to have eyes and ears and hands and mouths just like us. But whereas our eyes can see what our hands are doing and our ears can hear what our mouths are saying, our civic caretaker, the BMC, appears to be severely challenged in this respect.

This morning I see a huge picture in one of the five newspapers I depress myself with everyday, of a woman in a blue kameez and yellow dupatta swiping her card at a machine. Another woman beyond her is doing the same. The caption gives us to understand that these are BMC employees in a mad rush to get home. The news that accompanies the pic goes (in a nutshell) “Tut tut; that’s very naughty”. Apparently these women are leaving office a full half-an-hour before “the stipulated time”. It’s not happening only on the day this photograph was taken. It is happening everyday.

Unnamed BMC officials are deeply annoyed. They’ve announced punitive action. First, no increments. Next, termination of service.

I’m laughing hard, really hard at this. Didn’t we think BMC employees left work early (like their brothers and sisters in Mantralaya) because they didn’t think there was work to be done in the first place? That, even more radically, they didn’t turn up for work at all because moonlighting added more zeros to their already fat incomes? And that these indeed were the distinguishing marks of the BMC employee? In fact, I was quite convinced that these practices were cleared at the interview stage itself, before employees were hired: “Repeat after me: I submit humbly to BMC’s long-established work culture. I shall keep my hands free of work at all times and at the same time, keep them well-oiled for the pursuit of lucre.” Stamp, stamp, stamp, hired!

But the unnamed BMC officials quoted in the news report don’t seem to see it that way. They complain that early leavers are costing the corporation a loss of 58,000 man hours per day, at half an hour per head, and (excuse me while I roll on the floor), “affecting the BMC’s work culture and tarnishing its image”!

Image for heaven’s sake! Like the BMC is listed repeatedly as one of our most corrupt organisations? Like its employees sit on files, not chairs at the workplace and “misplace” said files the moment their contents begin to irritate their backsides? Like they treat octroi as a golden egg laying goose in their back yards or…need I go on?

As I pick myself off the floor, irony strikes. Our contractor who is doing some knocking and plastering work on our old building because it’s been leaking for years and peepul trees have been growing out of its back, calls to say there are some BMC chaps downstairs asking for 5,000 rupees because we are repairing our building and can you spare the cash? Never in my entire considerably long life, have I bribed. If this had been my personal work, I still would not have done so. But my 96-year-old upstairs neighbour has been worrying herself sick about the leaky walls falling in on her with the monsoon setting in.

I fished out the required 5,000 rupees from my emergency fund and handed it over to the contractor in utter humiliation. I watched the oily transaction from my verandah. The recipients of the booty were four strapping young men, smartly dressed, one in a fancy jerkin. They pocketed 4000 rupees and gave the contractor a receipt for 1000 rupees—a fine for some obscure rule they must have accused him of breaking. I am now part of the system.

BMC take a bow. Your image shines bright and clear. When a beggar puts his hand out to us, we tell him moralistically to work, not beg. When your men put their hands out to us, we dare not utter the word work. We simply pay up.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Curly dreams

Hair has been on my mind for some time. Every time I see a young woman swinging a plasticky sheet of it around her face in any one of the ten thousand ads we see on TV for hair oil, shampoo, hair colour, conditioner and whatever else, I think of my generation’s aspirations. They were not for glossy straight hair. They were for waves.

Waves could be lightly secured on both sides of a centre or side parting with clips made to look like butterflies, strawberries or ladybirds. They could be tied in two bunches on either side of the head with pink or red satin ribbons. They could be trained into the most envied thing of all: ringlets.

Belinda down the street wore ringlets. At school there was Sherry of the plump pink cheeks, and ringlets that bobbed deliciously up and down. None of us wore our hair short so we could never compete with either of them. But hope wasn’t dead. We could leave long brushes of hair loose at the end of our plaits and turn those into ringlets.

Every now and again a hopeful straight-haired friend would excitedly pour into our avid ears yet another secret for making ringlets; and yet again we’d go home in high spirits to try it out and return to school with our obdurate brushes still straight as brooms. I remember one of these secrets even now. You had to coil your plait end brushes tightly around a shoelace, twist them into little knots, then dip the knots in tea dregs and sleep on them. Next morning when you undid the shoelaces, hey presto there they were, your dream ringlets. Well, as I said, it was always, hey presto, there are your brushes again.

Ringlets, we decided, were unattainable. But waves? Surely those could be managed? My model for wavy hair was Nalini Chitre, the late poet Dilip Chitre’s cousin. All his three cousins were blessed with curls, but the other two had frizz. While this was infinitely more respectable than straight hair, one would turn to it only if waves failed.

In those days an older cousin of mine from Nasik was staying with us. She was indefatigable in her determination to make waves. Earlier she would do what many still do---make tiny plaits on hair washing day and be blessed with a frizz in the evening. It lasted for a couple of days and then wore out. But those two days were Saturday and Sunday, important days because she had a boyfriend nobody knew about. When she announced that she wanted to marry him, her father, my uncle, hauled her back to Nashik where she found her next boyfriend and eloped!

Anyway, when this cousin had no time to make tiny plaits on hair washing day, she pushed her hair up into a series of ridges around her head and pinned them down with long bobby pins. This trick produced results. I tried it out a couple of times but for god’s sake, how could I waste weekend mornings on elusive things like waves when exciting games were being played downstairs on the street?

Meanwhile, my craze for curls had got around the neighbourhood. It prompted the Pereiras downstairs to do an amazing thing. One of them worked for the Army and Navy Store in Fort, and he got me a home perm set for my 11th birthday. It had blue bone shaped curlers, squares of tissue paper, rubber bands and two bottles of liquid. My mother frowned at the liquids. “Chemicals!” she said and put them out of bounds.

For a couple of years after that, I would meticulously lay tissue paper squares at the ends of equally divided strands of hair, wind them up on the blue curlers and secure them round my head with rubber bands. But without the curling liquids all I got, when I let down my hair, was zigzags, which even I, blinded by hope, could not call curls.

This precious home perm set was called Toni. It was advertised famously by a pair of twins with glossy curls. The copy went, “Which twin has the Toni?” Who cared? I knew I was never going to have it. So go away. Get lost!

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Where the dirt is

I’d simply asked, “What are all those policemen doing out there?” They were standing with their van at the corner of my street where taxis normally wait. That’s why I’d had to walk in the opposite direction to find a cab. How was I to know that my simple question, muttered almost to myself, would act like a starter’s gun on my cabbie?

He was off.

“What do you think they’re doing?” he shot back. “Waiting to make money of course.
That’s how they are. If you’re just next to your house and think you can do a quick turn without bothering about the red signal, they are right there with open palms ready to fleece you. Now tell me aunty, did you ever see so many policemen out on the roads in your time? You make the smallest mistake and your pocket grows light. They make a mistake, and your pocket grows light again.”

Thereafter he was like a one-person show of “Where the Dirt is”. The curtain fell only when it had to—at the end of my journey. One story must serve as an example of the many he told.

He had had a new ration card made. It came with his name spelt wrong. He objected. The ration officer said if you want it corrected, you’ll have to make an affidavit. “Now a man working 12 hours a day to feed himself and his family—where does he have the time for lawyers and courts? The man says to himself I’ll have to pay those bastards anyway; so why not pay this one and head back to work? That’s how it is. I paid the bastard and the name was corrected. 200 rupees for two minutes’ work.”

For him, only one person had stood out like a shining beacon in all this murk. Indira Gandhi. “Now there was a woman who had guts, who had will power and who had our love. We would line up at Mahim when her car passed by. We would wave and she would wave back. Like this (both hands off the wheel, oh mi gawd!) These days, do we know or even care who goes where in those long cars with lights? Why don’t we care? Because they’re all gutter ke chuhe. She was a sherni.” He turned to flash a perfect 10 smile at me. A bike swerved into our path and sped on.

Next moment the smile curdled with intense contempt. “Baburao Mane, Shiv Sena man,” he spat out. “You don’t know him? You’ll see him walking around on our street. I asked him once to recommend me for a job. He suggests one that would get me Rs 50 a day. I said to him I don’t have a big enough almirah to put that in saab. I’m a driver. Talk 4000 rupees a month and I’ll listen. He shouts at me. Says get out, go find yourself a job. I say sure I’ll get out. But you watch it. You’re going to be on the street one day. And that’s where he is now. In his place? Eknath Gaekwad.”

After a moment’s pause, he turned around to deliver his punch line. No words. Just a mean and malevolent “Heh heh heh”!

Friday, June 11, 2010

Of nests and diving bombs

Suddenly the house crow—the Corvus splendens-- has become a subject of intense interest for me. It always seems to have been so to poets, painters, playwrights and philosophers. It goes as far back as Sant Dnyaneshwar whose lyric on the crow, “Pail to gay kau kokatahe” has been immortalised by Lata Mangeshkar in her brother Hridaynath’s composition. “Fly away crow, I will gild your feet in gold” sings the poet. And then again “I’ll make a curd-rice mould and bring it to your mouth”.
Kau and chiu are the eternal pair in children’s stories. They are invoked by mothers too, feeding morsels of food to reluctant infants: “This one is for kau. This one is for chiu.”
There’s Shafaat Khan’s play “Bambai ke kawwe” built around the power crows enjoy in Hindu funeral rites. Of the many blackly comic scenes in Satish Alekar’s “Mahanirvan”, one of the funniest is two sons with rice balls fighting for the attention of a single crow to bring ultimate release to their respective fathers’ troubled souls.
R. K. Laxman held an entire show of penciled and crayoned crows in all their moods and postures. They were sharp, shrewd creatures with cocked heads and slanted looks. Gieve Patel has done a few crows, scavengers, feasting on messy dead rats on roads. But he’s done one that’s different. “Crow with egg”. This fellow stands in the very centre of the picture frame balancing an egg on his beak, a consummate performer, commanding us to stop, look and admire.
Years ago I too became an admirer of the crow for a brief while when one of the species took to sitting at my window watching me write. It is flattering to get attention, even when it comes from a creature which has just been scraping human secretions off the street. I was almost on the point of consolidating our relationship by naming my friend the Thane of Cawdor when he stopped coming. I bet he went to sit at Shobhaa De’s window. Had he expected me to offer him moulds of curd-rice and gild his feet with gold? You never know where birds will get their ideas. Anyhow that was the end of my close encounter with crows.
Till recently, when one of them dived at my head and left it stunned for a good hour-and-a-half. What was that? What did I do? I was only looking out of my verandah window passing time. There was another attack the following day when I was trying to unhook a hanging potted plant from one corner of the verandah to carry it to the other, where the afternoon sun was slanting in.
Friends had suddenly turned foes. Someone said I shouldn’t take it so personally. They’d probably built a nest in the tree outside the verandah. I said, “So?”
I found the answer to that “so” when I Googled “House crow”. Amongst all the knowns listed there, I discovered this (to me) unknown: “Breeding pairs will repeatedly dive bomb humans near the nest.” Ah!
Only personal experience tells you how long breeding lasts. The eggs were laid in April, five in all. Mrs Crow sat and sat and sat on them and managed to extract two kids towards the middle of May. The fledglings were grey wisps of something like feathers back then. By end May we could see their hungry beaks poking out of the nest. We thought we could clean our windows now without being attacked. We were mistaken. Our cleaning hands were clawed.
The little ones are now old enough to hop around on the branches nearest to the nest. They’ve grown sleek while our windows have grown grimy. Try to clean them even now and zoop, a black bomb comes diving down.
I wait impatiently for the baby crows to take to the skies. And yet there is fear. Forget the grime on my windows; will these little creatures, whose birth and growth I’ve been watching for over two months, be safe in those wide open skies with no mummy-daddy watching over them?

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Words against meaning

Two years ago I translated Prabhakar Barve’s book “Kora Canvas” from Marathi into English. I knew even as I was doing it, that the translation wasn’t working in English. The original is too full of repetitions and circumlocutions. The artist strives too hard to express the inexpressible, making reading and trying to understand the text tedious. The English language doesn’t take too kindly to descriptive stuff about the inner lives of artists and to home grown mysticism. These things sound just fine in Marathi because the language reflects a culture that thinks, feels and writes that way. In English the same sounds fluffy and uncomfortably sentimental.

Where exactly is the inner life of an artist located? In “Kora Canvas” it is in the “mun”. Now here’s a word designed to give the translator her worst nightmares. In Molesworth’s Marathi into English dictionary which I most often use for its reliability (it doesn’t pass up on difficult words as some other dictionaries do), the word could have any of the following five meanings:

1) The mind; the seat of judgement, reflection, reasoning, memory etc
2) The heart; the seat of the sentiments, passions and the affections
3) The conscience or moral sense
4) Consciousness
5) The will or determining faculty.

Realising the problem this list is likely to create for a person who is straining to understand the meaning of the word, Mr Molesworth gives generous advice. Choose whichever meaning fits the context, he says.

Easier said than done. Usage has never bothered with meanings neatly separated into compartments. In popular and literary usage, “mun” leaks through Mr Molesworth’s pigeon holes to combine heart and soul in one context and mind and heart in another, with a hint of imagination thrown in for good measure. There lies the rub for translators, a breed that Mr Molesworth knows nothing of.

It is strange how inter-connections get made when you happen to be working on two independent things at the same time. While I’m editing the ninth chapter of “Kora Canvas” provisionally entitled “Sensibility” because the original title could also be translated as “Awareness” or “Percipience”, I am also reading Zeami on No theatre and the idea of “yugen”, and an essay on Japanese aesthetics.

“Yugen” cannot be translated in a single word. It connotes the world of the invisible that lies beyond reality. The original Chinese meaning of the word was, to be so mysteriously faint and profound as to be beyond human perception and understanding. This is the kind of space Barve often tries to enter but with the wrong tools.

The essay on Japanese aesthetics goes into equally untranslatable concepts like “mono no aware”, which might be understood to mean “empathy with things in their transience”. Barve writes about once having been so intensely absorbed in the image of a yellow leaf that had fallen on a wet, black road that it kept recurring in his work. Surely a mono no aware response?

Barve also writes about occasionally feeling profoundly solitary and lonely. He accepts the state and lives with it until it passes. But there have been occasions he says, when the feeling has given birth to a creative idea. This is like the idea of “sabi” which suggests both the subjective sadness of solitariness and the objective ‘is’ness of it. This duality is perfectly expressed in the following haiku:

Solitary now —
Standing amidst the blossoms
Is a cypress tree.

At one point, Barve speaks of a dense darkness that descends on him, seeming to fill the entire void of his rib cage. He accepts this state too and lives with it. Sometimes, magically, out of the darkness arises an image of incredible clarity. Patina, darkness, and what they can reveal, are ideas that imbue Japanese aesthetics.

The mysterious beauty of darkness is the subject of Junichiro Tanizaki’s gem of a monograph, “In Praise of Shadows”. My favourite passage is the one that describes his experience of drinking soup from a lacquer bowl. Lacquer bowls have dark interiors. “What lies within the darkness one cannot distinguish.; but the palms sense the gentle movement of the liquid, vapour rises from within, forming droplets on the rim, and the fragrance carried upon the vapour brings a delicate anticipation.” It is not the thing itself but our awareness of it that creates the thing and the beauty of the thing. Barve attempts to suggest this too in “Sensibility”.

In his afterword, the translator of “In Praise of Shadows”, Thomas J Harper, cites Susan Sontag's explanation of why she chose to write “Notes on Camp” in the style she did. “To snare a sensibility in must be tentative and nimble. The form of jottings rather than an essay (with its claim to a linear, consecutive argument), seemed more appropriate for getting down something of this particular fugitive sensibility.”

This is perhaps what Barve too should have done in “Kora Canvas”. He did the reverse. He constructed these essays from the jottings he used to make in his diary.

As an artist, Barve locates his shapes and forms with sensitive precision in the picture space. In "Kora Canvas", he repeatedly asserts that it is only when forms are placed in a coherent relationship with space in the picture frame, that meaning is made. In literature too, suggestion rather than overwrought description makes for greater significance.

Had Barve known as the Japanese do (or did) that certain concepts cannot be over-explained, and had he written "Kora Canvas" "nimbly and tentatively" rather than in long-winded adjective-heavy passages, we'd have had a better chance of reaching his "mun". The style in which it is written stalls us and leaves us groping for meaning.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

noise ahoy!

If you are one of those who flips the page contemptuously at the sight of fish, crabs and scorpions crawling over two columns of newsprint, with the reigning pundit telling you that he sees much hope for your business today or love is in the air for you or watch that pothole your sign is full of accidents, and if you happen to be a BEST commuter to boot, it’s time to be deeply depressed. The BEST has designs on your peace of mind.

The news is that the BES & T Undertaking plans to install two 22-inch LCD screens in every bus in its fleet to give you news updates, information on branded goods, automated announcements about the next bus stop, tips from Tarla Dalal on eating right and, hrrmph, astrology readings by Bejan Daruwalla.

It appears that there’s a set-up called the Visual Interactive Transit Entertainment System which is going to supply us with the above-mentioned noisy goodies. Did hordes of commuters sit in dharna outside BEST house when we weren’t looking, clamouring for information on branded products and tips on sensible eating? No. BEST in its very own infinite wisdom has decided we are a pack of uninformed dolts who need to be enlightened on our way to work. In fact one news report makes the BEST plan out to be a form of social service. It seems the venerable undertaking is sadly aware that the way commuters rush around, they are left with no time to sit and stare at their newspapers and/or TV sets. This leads to severe information deprivation. The 22 inch LCD screens per bus are the undertaking’s humble contribution towards creating a more informed citizen.

I’m thinking back to my days of bus travel from Shivaji Park to VT (oops! I mean CST). I particularly remember a fellow commuter who would regularly fall asleep at Sayani Road and wake up with the smell of fish at Crawford Market, all set for the day ahead. What this gentleman was deprived of was not information but sleep. Will today’s victims of sleep deprivation, common to most commuters, be able to sleep through Tarlaben telling them not to eat fried foods, Daruwalla telling them not to fall into potholes and a seductive baritone telling them it’s oh so cool to wear glares that will cost them half of next month’s salary?

Those days I composed most of my Tuesday columns for the late and profoundly lamented “Evening News” en route to the office because, what I was deprived of at home, was time. The columns got composed despite the thunder and clatter and honking of traffic outside because you knew the noise wasn’t maliciously directed at you. But now BEST plans to customise whole wavelengths of noise specially for you, and you can’t jump out of the window because you want to get to work in one piece.

Yes, it’s bad news. But there are two silver linings you can hold on to. The BEST plan can materialise only if the BEST committee approves of it; and experience tells us that where there’s a committee, there’s a roadblock. More good news. Currently the committee is in a sulk for which the official reason is that there’s been some breach of contract by Interactive-what’s-their-name. But actually the committee’s pissed off because the Interactive people went to press before the committee had officially approved the commuter information plan.

The second silver lining is for plebeians. The toffs who ride in air-conditioned buses are going to get the first experimental blast of information. Let’s rub our hands in glee. For who knows? Electronic stuff is tricky. It simply may not work in the AC buses and the whole thing will be called off. Plans involving crores have failed, so why not this? Or, equally reliably, someone will breach some other contract. They do it all the time. Either way, we plebeians will be saved.

If success takes the silver out of both linings, there’s a third that we can make available to ourselves. I’ve just been to the dictionary to find out what “interactive” means. It has a very promising meaning. In electronic devices it means a two-way flow of information in which the giver of the said info responds to the user’s input. Now just assume-- I’m not inciting us-- but just assume our input is a couple of well-aimed stones? The response would have to be silence, na?

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Beauty? My foot!

It's just a fortnight under a year since I last published a post. It's been a year of excessive work. At the end of a hard day of writing for other people, there was neither time nor inclination to write for oneself. Now, with a respite that looks like lasting at least till the end of the year (unless I open my stupid trap and say yes to yet another back-breaking assignment), I'm back to blogging. And it's Shivaji Park once again.

A few months ago, suddenly, workmen started digging up the walkers' track that runs along the periphery of the park. Did someone tell us this was going to happen? Hey, which country did that question come from? Not ours for sure. We are a country of jabberers; but ask us to part with information that's going to affect people's daily lives vitally, and we are like clams suffering from a particularly bad bout of lockjaw.

But one takes life as it comes, and we did. So everyone who was used to walking on the walkers' track, poured out onto the pavement where many like me walk. Thereafter it was constantly bang, dash, bump, trip, excuse me, sorry, damn and grrr around the park. Not pleasant first thing in the morning. And worse because they called the whole exercise "beautification".

Now this beautification plan included a couple of friezes near one of the park entrances showing Shivaji Maharaj being coronated etc. Okay, why not? If you're a Marathi, you are morally obliged to find the idea beautiful.

However, as everybody knows, there's a pair of cousins in politics who don't see eye to eye on anything; and when it comes to Shivaji Park and the great warrior king after whom it is named, they fervently believe their respective parties hold the exclusive title deed to both. When their eyes lock over these properties, they get so severely crossed that only the whites show, the pupils deserting their sockets in sheer fury. So, with one cousin doing Shivaji friezes, the other had to cry foul. Being smart, he took care to cry foul legally.

That is how the public came to hear about how the entire beautification project was commissioned by the BMC, ruled by the Shivaji frieze party, without calling for tenders. This made some residents of Shivaji Park very angry. They upped and filed a PIL calling for a stay on the entire project. A stay was duly brought. Only Shivaji Maharaj's coronation frieze managed to wriggle free of the embargo by virtue of its requiring only a few finishing touches. These done, Bal Thackeray was able to unveil it as scheduled, on May 1, Maharashtra's 50th happy birthday. Whether the frieze adds to the beauty of Shivaji Park or not is not under debate right now.

What's under debate is the rest of the "beautification" work. The stay has stayed that work for what feels like 18 aeons. So what do we have now? We have the track along the western flank of the park fully paved. Halfway down the north end, the paving gives way to a dug up stretch. Round the corner on the east, as well as along the south, some stretches are piled with rubble, others are under sackcloth, and still others are half paved with some paving blocks still scattered around waiting for the stay to be lifted. As a result, walkers who cannot entirely give up their inner track habit, do a kind of slalom in and out from track to pavement and back. Where they come out is where we go into the bang, dash, bump, grrr routine.

The most beautiful part of this beautification story is the parapet. The BMC's idea of beautifying a parapet has always been to paint its stone sides in regulation yellow, blue and red. That has been done. In addition, the top of the parapet has been painted green. Now, if BMC had spent just a few minutes at Shivaji Park observing walker behaviour, they'd have noticed that people sit on the parapet after their walks for a chinwag (and occasionally jalebis and ganthias) with friends. So the thing to do would have been to paint the parapet at the dead of night with paint that would dry in two hours flat. This they didn't do with the result that hopeful parapet sitters spread sheets of newspaper on the wet paint to prevent their posteriors from going green. Today the parapet offers an interesting archive of local, national and world news of the time in four languages.

The current situation is something like this. The chaps who commissioned the beautification work without calling for tenders are sitting at their desks swilling tea or killing flies; the filers of the PIL are happy atop their moral high horse; the judges in their wigs (do they still wear them?) have blissfully forgotten to unstay the stay; and the public that wants nothing more than to walk for its health, is frothing unhealthily at the mouth wondering which of the above to clobber to get the action going.